Start-up Lessons: More Business Opportunities With Better Talent Management

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Start-up Lessons

When I think about all the companies that I’ve worked for, not leveraging the talent already in a place always strikes me as one of the easiest things to fix, and one of the hardest management missteps to explain away.

A company at its most fundamental is its people, and if managers can’t find a way to effectively use their most important, and most accessible asset, then they need to rethink the way they approach opportunities.

When looking for good practices, I look to start-ups, which would’t survive without good talent. They need to not only center around a cool idea or cause, they need to immediately engage, continue to intrigue, and perhaps more importantly, they need to prove that they know how to build an organization.

Here are four practices that I see in all good start-ups. I encourage you to consider taking these up today, so that you can turn opportunities into business, and create a more fulfilling work environment at the same time.

Transparency

Unlike mature companies which create departments and functions, and organizational charts and job descriptions, start-ups avoid creating these, choosing instead to have different people, with different backgrounds and varying degrees of experience, rally around shared goals to just get the job done. Many times, start-up roles are filled by people without deep management experience. Big issues that require collective action get addressed as a group and not obscured by the silos. In mature organizations, people often just keep their heads down and do their work. They rarely get called upon to do something outside of their job description, and few volunteer, even if the opportunity arises.

It may be important for a mature company to create efficiencies of scale, but that doesn’t mean they need to completely abandon the idea that everybody is working toward the same goals, and if you can contribute, by all means, jump in and contribute.

Of course, this requires organizations to create practices that overcome the momentum to block the flow of information, to bottle up talent inside of functions, to ignore experience that doesn’t fit the job description, and to make work about getting the work done, not achieving anything bigger than the moment.

Bring in transparency and empowerment by making all meetings public and open to all employees who have some interests or passion on a subject. This approach to meetings eliminates silos–it gives people who really care permission to come to meetings that align with their passion and experience. It helps organizations transform meetings into collaborative experiences that find solutions.

And it doesn’t hurt if all meetings are optional. Create an environment of choice and empower your teams.

And it doesn’t hurt if all meetings are optional. Create an environment of choice and empower your teams.

Some people have a difficult time with the idea of transparency. In this context, the idea is pretty simple. Think about a one room start-up. The phone rings. It is a customer. The customer is on speaker phone. Everybody in the room hears from the customer. They hear about pricing, licensing, customer service, design and quality…all at the same time. The customer’s input doesn’t get parsed, doled out, and passed along from one function to another to treat discrete symptoms. The communication with that customer is transparent. Everybody, in every function, gets all the information.

Even the most mature organizations can use tools like collaboration technology to create transparency and make sure people are aware of opportunities when they present themselves. Individuals can subscribe to channels in enterprise social networking, for instance, to see what opportunities exist, to listen to what the customer is saying.

Hire the whole person

People looking for a job today are being told they should shrink their resume down and tailor it to meet the jobs they are applying for. Often the first reader of a resume is an algorithm looking for key phrases, phrases like years of experience, Masters in Electric Engineering, or worked in Singapore. I was talking with a recruiter for a large software company not long ago and she told me that what keeps her up at night are all the great resumes she never sees because they are filtered out by technology.

This sad situation has created a world where recruiters and hiring managers don’t really get to know the whole person. By not hiring a whole person, organizations end up not knowing things about a person that may prove valuable in future situations. Does somebody in a marketing role have a solid retail background — a background perhaps better suited to crafting messages about a new retail-oriented product than the person assigned? Does a customer service person have a strong manufacturing background so that he or she could take the lead on enhancing technical product responses by engaging with manufacturing and engineering on solutions that aren’t in the current documentation? Has someone spent most of their school years through college, playing in an orchestra — but because that wasn’t relevant, failed to be consulted on the background music for the new corporate video?

In a start-up, you do not get hired for today, nor tomorrow–you get hired so you can contribute as your company grows.

In a start-up, you do not get hired for today, nor tomorrow–you get hired so you can contribute as your company grows.

Hiring the whole person enables and empowers. It enables the organization to match emergent opportunities with people already inside the organization. And it empowers the employee to say yes when opportunity knocks.

Make work meaningful

Organizations should have a higher purpose than making profits or serving shareholders.

Organizations should build social and environmental good into their outcomes. They need to have vision that inspires employees. But organizations don’t make work meaningful, people do. People create the work environment.

Start-ups have a clear advantage when creating a meaningful work experience. Most of the time the founder is part of this process. He or she can share the vision and the passion that inspired the creation of the company. The meaning starts with the interview.

Each manager of your organization needs to translate the passion instilled by the founders into inspiration for their team. Managers need to act as leaders, to go beyond just getting things done.

Each manager of your organization needs to translate the passion instilled by the founders into inspiration for their team. Managers need to act as leaders, to go beyond just getting things done.

Managers also need to think holistically. They need to design work experiences. They need to connect people across the organization, and facilitate the discovery of meaning. Managers need to think beyond tasks and actively tie work to strategy. The book, Management by Design by Daniel W. Rasmus, suggests that organizations think about this as the rhythm and motion of the business — that work flows for a purpose and that people need to understand its destination. By creating these connections, as the organization moves forward, all of its assets stay aligned because they are working toward a common purpose.

I know we don’t all work in post-industrial organizations with innovative, co-created cultures that offer distributed deliberation and decision making with highly transparent processes and data. If we want to improve employee engagement, though, we need to help those we manage make sense of what they are doing at the highest level possible, and perhaps that will help us bring some additional meaning to our own work.

Unleash talent

A major organizational strategy should always be: find work that best fits people’s talents and passion. We need to unleash people to apply their talent. But work doesn’t always end up accomplishing this. The hiring process forces people to squeeze their talents into a job description. Once hired, they hone their work to meet the objectives they negotiated. Some people put their objectives on the wall of their cubicle so that when asked to work outside of the parameters of those objectives, they can point and say, “sorry, that isn’t in my scope of work.” In all the reduction-ism we end up under-utilizing people. We hire people packaged in boxes and then put boxes around their boxes in the cause of productivity. We tell them to eliminate distractions and to focus on what is important. And these boxes keep people from exploring the organization. And they also keep the organization from exploring its people.

If we want engaged employees in a world of rapid change, we need to get to know them, and allow them to get to know the organization.

In a startup, goals change at a fast pace. People know that today’s objectives might well change tomorrow. If we want engaged employees in a world of rapid change, we need to get to know them, and allow them to get to know the organization. We need to accept it when people leap out of their boxes and demonstrate a willingness to contribute in new, unexpected ways. We don’t need to create incentives if we offer permission. Letting people explore is good for engagement, and it’s good for innovation. Too often we try to turn businesses into machines. That makes us think about people like machines, and when we do that, we lose all hope for passion and novelty.

A concluding thought

We all get caught up in what needs to be done. There is no excuse for ignoring the value that can be realized by helping people find ways to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on important challenges and opportunities.

The seemingly insurmountable levels of employee disengagement can be reduced one percentage point at a time, one person at a time. Managers need to think beyond the boundaries of the boxes they are in, and help those they are responsible for nurturing find ways to move beyond their boxes and apply their best selves. The mighty combination of transparency, a holistic view of the employee, an investment in meaning, and employee empowerment, creates a business environment that doesn’t need to be told to succeed, it is one that just wants to succeed.